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Tory MP asks BT if using Huawei complies with anti-slavery policy

A Conservative MP has asked BT to investigate whether using Huawei is compliant with its anti-slavery policy after an Australian thinktank alleged that some of the Chinese firm’s subcontractors used forced labour from the country’s Muslim minority.

Bob Seely, who is one of a group of Tories unhappy with government plans to allow Huawei to supply 5G network technology, set out his concerns in a letter to Philip Jansen, BT’s chief executive officer, seen by the Guardian.

The MP cited a study – Uyghurs For Sale – from the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), which concluded that “under conditions that strongly suggest forced labour” Uighurs are working in the supply chain of Huawei and dozens of other global brands.

Seely asked Jansen what he intended to do about the allegations in light of BT’s modern slavery statement, which says: “we’re against all forms of modern slavery, everywhere”. BT, the owner of the EE network, said it was already in discussions with Huawei about the report.

Seely is hoping to raise the issue of forced labour in a special parliamentary debate in Westminster Hall on Wednesday morning, called for by another rebel Conservative, the former party leader Iain Duncan Smith.

A group of about 30 Tories want the government to rethink its decision to allow Huawei to supply 35% of 5G network equipment in the UK – and not use the company at all amid fears its technology could be exploited for mass surveillance by the Chinese state.

The ASPI researchers cited three examples of subcontractors supplying Huawei whose factories received Chinese Muslims who had been transferred from Xinjiang province, according to Chinese media reports.

In his letter to Jansen, Seely quoted the report as he set out his concerns: “In these factories far from home, Uighur workers are typically forced to lead a harsh, segregated life under so-called military-style management.

“They undergo organised Mandarin and ideological training outside working hours, are subject to constant surveillance, and are forbidden from participating in religious observances.”

Q&A

Who are the Uighurs?

The Uighurs are a predominantly Muslim Turkic-speaking ethnic group, primarily from China’s northwestern region of Xinjiang. They have been subject to religious and ethnic persecution by Chinese authorities, with rights groups claiming that in recent years more than 1 million people have been held in detention camps. 

Having initially denied the existence of the camps, China has described them as “vocational education centres” in the face of mounting evidence in the form of government documents, satellite imagery and testimonies from escaped detainees. Satellite images have also suggested that more than two dozen Islamic religious sites have been partly or completely demolished since 2016.

In July 2019 China claimed that most of the people sent to the mass detention centres have “returned to society”, but this has been disputed by relatives of those detained. Around 1-1.5m Uighur are estimated to live overseas as a diaspora, many of whom have campaigned against the treatment of their families. China repeated these claims in December 2019, but offering no evidence of their release.  

Martin Belam

BT’s modern slavery statement says the practice has “no place in our operations. And that goes for those companies and people who work with us and on our behalf too, wherever they are in the world.”

Seely asked Jansen: “What do you, as chief executive of BT, intend to do in regards to Huawei following the accusations made against the company by ASPI? Does BT believe that these allegations are, or may be, true?”

Huawei said it was aware of the ASPI report and was investigating. A spokesperson said: “We require all our suppliers to comply with international standards and applicable laws as a condition of doing business with us. We have read the ASPI report and are looking into the matter.”

BT said it was already in discussions with Huawei. A BT spokesperson said: “We’re committed to respecting human rights, including international labour standards, in our own business and in our supply chain.

“Forced labour is never acceptable in our own operations or those of our suppliers, and we have engaged with Huawei in connection with these allegations.”